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February 10 2011

19:00

On an embargo-driven beat, science reporters aim to build for context

The events that science journalists publish about most frequently are themselves acts of publishing: the appearance of research papers in peer-reviewed journals. Most journals embargo papers before publication, granting reporters access to unpublished work in exchange for an agreement not to report until the embargo is lifted. Embargoes give reporters time to study new research and seek out commentary from authoritative voices; they also allow journals to exercise power over reporters and to guard their control over the flow of scientific information. Reporters who break embargoes risk losing access to information about new findings, emerging technologies, and exciting discoveries — along with the chance to process and vet those findings to determine whether excitement is warranted.

John Rennie, the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, is hardly alone in his frustration with the fickle and ever-shifting embargo practices of scientific journals. In a January 26 column in the Guardian, Rennie argues that embargoes encourage superficial and premature reporting on new science. “Out of fear of being scooped,” he writes, news outlets rush their coverage, “publish[ing] stories on the same research papers at the moment the embargo ends. In that stampede of coverage, opportunities for distinctive reporting are few.” As a kind of thought experiment, Rennie suggests that science journalism could answer with self-imposed embargoes, in which news outlets would agree not to report on new journal papers until six months after publication.

As Rennie admits, that isn’t going to happen. Instead, he encourages journalists to experiment with new ways of enriching reporting between embargoes, shooting the gaps with coverage that offers nuance and a broadened perspective from which to judge the significance of new findings.

Consciously looking for context

Having seen John Rennie speak about the problems of embargo-driven journalism at the ScienceOnline 2011 conference last month, British science writer Ed Yong cast about for a way to add context to his coverage of stem cell research, a beat he covers frequently for Wired, Discover, and New Scientist, among other venues. As Paul Raeburn reports at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Yong crafted a timeline to document the field’s major stories from the last few years. Using a free web-based timeline creator he found at Dipity.com, Yong assembled articles from major journals and coverage from science news outlets into an annotated history of the discoveries that have shaped the field. Yong calls his timeline a tool for “looking at the stories that lead up to new discoveries, rather than focusing on every new paper in isolation.” Posted at Yong’s Discover-hosted blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, the timeline is a rich and engaging piece of analysis. It also serves Yong as a resource for further reporting, giving him a baseline from which to judge the significance of emerging science before it comes out from behind its embargoes.

Yong’s tool offers another example of the future-of-context ideas we write about often here at the Lab — like explainer pages and building background into stories, issues that apply across all beats and topics. Similarly, Yong turns a tried and true model of information visualization — the timeline — into a tool for putting any given story in stem cell research into its proper light. And rather neatly, he does it with time as the axis — for time, after all, is precisely what embargoes are all about. It’s just one example, but it’s a conscious attempt to break out of the imposed news cycle of embargo-driven reporting.

The Ingelfinger Rule

In fact, science journalists are squeezed at both ends of the journals’ publishing cycles. In addition to levying embargoes, many journals also observe the so-called Ingelfinger Rule, refusing to publish research that has been reported or commented on elsewhere. Named for former New England Journal of Medicine editor Franz Ingelfinger, the rule was formulated to keep untested health-science findings from making their way into public sphere before being submitted to the peer-review process — what some call “science by press conference.” But the rule more obviously helps journals protect their revenue sources — and it is for this reason that it has been widely adopted by most science publishers, even those who operate in fields with no public-health ramifications. (The cost of those journals — $27,465 for a year’s subscription to The Journal of Comparative Neurology! — has even the most resource-rich libraries up in arms.)

Ivan Oransky agrees that Yong’s tool is a simple and effective answer to the challenge presented by the journals’ squeeze tactics, calling it “terrific” and “scalable.” Oransky, who is executive editor of Reuters Health and an MD on the faculty at the NYU School of Medicine, runs the blog Embargo Watch, where he covers the uses and misuses of embargo practices in careful detail (and which John Rennie praised in his remarks at the ScienceOnline meeting). And he echoes Rennie’s call for finding ways to do science reporting outside the restrictions imposed by journals. “Journals serve a purpose,” Oransky told me in an email, “by applying the imperfect but valuable filter of peer review. We’d all like to get away from such heavy reliance on them.” With embargoes and the Ingelfinger Rule, he argues, journals exercise a “chilling effect on communication between scientists — many publicly funded — and journalists,” frustrating reporters who try “to move science reporting upstream to cover science before it’s in one of the journals.”

In science journalism’s crowded ecosystem, the double-barreled threat of embargo and the Ingelfinger Rule can have a deranging effect, pressuring serious news outlets to compete for scoops with online aggregators and casual bloggers. And as scientists themselves join the fray in blogs or through the social media, the veneer of decorum and collegiality imposed by embargoes is becoming increasingly illusory. On its own, an analytic tool like Ed Yong’s won’t break the deranging control that journals exercise over science coverage. But in striving to report on the practice of science as well as published results, Yong’s combination of web-based publishing tools and knowledgable reporting makes for a node on a promising timeline.

October 08 2010

13:10

BBC new linking guidelines issued – science journals mentioned

The BBC have just emailed new linking guidelines to their staff. They stipulate that linking is “essential” to online journalism and in one slide (it’s a PowerPoint document) titled ‘If you remember nothing else’ highlight how linking will change:

What we used to do…

  • Lists of archive news stories
  • Homepages only on external websites
  • No inline linking in news stories

What we do now – think adding value…

  • Avoid news stories and link to useful stuff – analysis, explainers, Q&As, pic galleries etc
  • On external websites look beyond homepage to pages of specific relevance
  • Inline linking in news stories is OK when it’s to a primary source

Other points of note in the document include the repeated emphasis on useful deep linking, and the importance of the newstracker module (which links to coverage on other news sites). Curiously, when referring to inline links it does say that “different rules can apply” to BBC blogs – “speak to blogs team if in doubt”.

Something I did look for – and find – was a reference to linking to scientific journals. And here it is: “In news stories inline links must go to primary sources only– eg scientific journal article or policy report (1 or 2 per story; avoid intro)”

This is significant given the previous campaigning on this issue.

On the whole it’s a good set of guidance – I’ll refrain from publishing it in hope that the BBC will…

September 07 2010

14:00

“A completely new model for us”: The Guardian gives outsiders the power to publish for the first time

Last week, the Guardian launched a network of science blogs with a goal that perfectly mixed science with blog: “We aim to entertain, enrage and inform.”

Now, on the paper’s website, you can find hosted content from four popular and well-respected blogs: “Life and Physics” by Jon Butterworth, a physics professor at University College of London who does work with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN; “The Lay Scientist,” the pop-science-potpourri blog by researcher and science writer Martin Robbins; the science policy blog “Political science” by former MP Evan Harris; and “Punctuated Equilibrium,” by the evolutionary biologist known as Grrrl Scientist.

The idea is both to harness scientific expertise and, at the same time, to diffuse it. “This network of blogs is not just for other science bloggers to read; it’s not just for other scientists,” says Alok Jha, a science and environment correspondent who came up with the idea for the network and now — in addition to his reporting and writing duties — is overseeing its implementation. The network is intended to reach — and entertain/enrage/inform — as many people as possible. “We’re a mainstream newspaper,” he says, “so everything we do has to come about through that prism.” And it marks another small shift in the media ecosystem: the media behemoth and independent bloggers, collaborating for audiences rather than competing for them.

If that sounds familiar, it may be because the new network is a direct response to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s goal of journalistic “mutualization.” (Okay, okay: mutualiSation.) “It’s good to have criticism from scientists when we do things wrong,” Jha notes, “but it’s also good to have them understand how we write things — and give them a chance to do it.” Guardian reporters don’t spend days in the control room at CERN; someone who does, though, is Jon Butterworth. Having him and his fellow scientists as part of an extended network of Guardian writers benefits both the paper and its readers. “The science desk here will essentially become a channel for these guys to report from their worlds they’re all seeing,” Jha notes. The scientists “are going to lend a bit of their stardust to us”; in return, they’ll get exposure not just to a broader readership, but to a more diverse one, as well.

Exposure and payment

The Guardian network comes at time when science blog networks populated by writers with particular — and highly focused — areas of expertise are proliferating. Last week, the Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher of open-access journals emphasizing the biological sciences, launched its own 11-blog network. PLoS Blogs joins Wired Science, Scientopia, and others. And, of course, science blogs have been in the news more than usual of late, with ScienceBlogs and the scandal that was PepsiGate. That scandal — in which PepsiCo tapped its own “experts” to contribute content to the otherwise proudly independent blog network — didn’t precipitate the Guardian’s own foray into science blog networking, which has been in the works since this spring. However, “it certainly accelerated everything,” Jha says. “I think there was soul-searching going on among the bloggers out there: ‘What do we do next? How do we do it?’ And that, in turn, gave the Guardian staff the sense that, okay, now is the time to do it.”

The general value proposition here is the most typical one: “more content” on the side of the media outlet, and “more exposure” on the side of the content providers. Many scientists are interested in writing, Jha points out; but there are far fewer who understand the mysterious alchemy required to successfully pitch stories to news organizations. The blog setup reframes the relationship between the expert and the outlet — with the Guardian itself, in this case, going from “gatekeeper” to “host.”

The upshot of all that, for the scientists, isn’t exposure in the Huffpostian sense, in which getting your name out there = money. The Guardian pays the bloggers for their work. Which is a matter of principle as much as economics: Even though some of the scientists were already writing their blogs without compensation, Jha notes, “we thought we can’t possibly just take a blog for free, because it would be exploitative.”

The solution: a 50/50 ad revenue split. The Guardian sells ads against the bloggers’ pages; the bloggers, in turn, get half the revenue from the exchange. But this being an experiment — and web ads being notoriously fickle, even on a high-traffic site like the Guardian’s — the arrangement also includes a kind of financial insurance policy for the bloggers: If ad revenues fall below target, they’ll revisit the deal.

“Independent of all interference”

Though the blogs’ flags vary, they feature, in their Guardian presentation, a uniform tagline: “HOSTED BY THE GUARDIAN.” Which is a way of clarifying — and reiterating — that, though the blogs’ content is on the Guardian’s site, it’s not fully of the Guardian’s site. “The idea is that this is not an internal reporters’ or editorial blog,” Jha says. “It’s these guys — it’s their thoughts, independent of all interference.”

And “independent” really means “independent.” The blogs aren’t edited — for content or for copy. Unlike some other newspaper/blog hosting arrangements (see, for example, Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight is licensed by The New York Times — and whose content is overseen, and edited, by Times staff), the Guardian’s science blogs are overseen by the bloggers themselves. For these first couple weeks, yes, a Guardian production editor will read the posts before hitting “publish.” But that’s a temporary state of affairs — a period meant to work out technical kinks and to foster trust on both sides. The goal, after this initial trial period, is to give the bloggers remote access to the Guardian’s web publishing tools — something, Jha notes, “that no one apart from internal staff had been able to do before.” The vision — a simple one, but one that’s nicely symbolic, as well — is that the bloggers will soon be able to publish directly to the Guardian site, with no intermediary. “It’s a completely new model for us,” Jha notes — because, at the moment, “nothing here is unedited.”

Jha is well aware of the potential for legal headaches that accompanies that freedom — a potential that’s particularly menacing in the U.K., whose legal system plays so (in)famously fast-and-loose with libel. “As a news organization, we’ve been very careful to be on the right side of the law,” Jha says; then again, though, “we’d never try and censor.” Balancing freedom-of-expression concerns with their organizational imperative to protect themselves from liability is something Jha and his colleagues have spent a lot of time discussing in the run-up to the network’s launch. Ultimately, though, the vision won out over the caution. “We always err on the side of ‘let’s publish’ rather than not,” he notes; and, as far as the site’s new bloggers go, the goal is less top-down authority, not more. “Eventually, we do want them to have complete control,” Jha says. “That is the ambition.”

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